There are very few experiences that can match the fear and uncertainty of becoming a college freshman. It’s a time of potentially crippling vulnerability when you’ve exposed yourself to a whole new world, awaiting certain judgment. In other words, it’s a lot like acting.
This year’s Freshman Theatre Project is very much a reflection of that experience. Professor Walt Jones leads the students in a production of interview theatre, a concept inspired by Caryl Churchill and the Joint Stock theatre method. This technique involves sending a group of actors and designer out into a given community to interview people on a particular topic.
The project is an undertaking done by the two sections of Jones’ Freshman Seminar class. Students have conducted interviews at locations like Walmart, Taco Bell, the Wild Boar Café – and will soon visit a local senior center – in order to gain insight on the depths of the human psyche.
This method of experimental theatre can most famously be seen in the tragic production of “The Laramie Project,” a piece based on the aftermath of the murder of the University of Wyoming’s gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998.
While CSU’s theatre adaptation won’t be quite as provocative, the group has aimed to explore topics that invoke a similar kind of emotion in their subjects.
For Alana Corrigan, the experience has been invaluable. “It’s one of the best ways you can get the truest and most honest human experience on stage,” Corrigan says, continuing, “I think it’s really great that my final project this semester will be bringing that human experience to life in a different, more theatrical way.”
Corrigan originally came to Colorado State University with her eyes set on a degree in English, but as part of a family of artists, it wasn’t long until her roots caught up to her. After taking several theatre courses as a supplement to her English studies, she decided to make the switch to theatre program as a sophomore. “I’ve always loved acting and performing since I was a little girl,” Corrigan says. “My parents made it very clear that the arts and theatre were very important to our family.”
Hannah Honegger faced a similar situation in grappling with her educational path. Honegger is an upperclassman transfer student in the theatre department, and though she is technically a senior, she is an honorary freshman in this semester’s seminar.
Much of Honegger’s youth was spent participating in her local church’s theatre productions. Despite pressure to take a more ‘practical’ route, she chose to pursue an associate of art degree from Front Range before coming to CSU for her bachelors. Speaking of theatre Honegger says, “It has really helped me to grow my confidence and with growing up and forming friendships.”
Regardless of their focus, whether it might be directing, technical production, costume design or otherwise – all of the students are required to perform. Something Jones refers to as a “rite of passage.”
“What’s really rewarding about this is that it’s a freshman seminar, these are young kids, people who are crossing this dangerous bridge from high school to college,” Jones says. “You just look out at a bunch of deer in the headlights, they’re scared to death.”
Although an ambitious undertaking, the students seem to have overcome any shyness or insecurity to gather the best possible material for their own adaptations, a feat that can largely attributed to Jones’ direction.
With such an accomplished career, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when Jones wasn’t a bonafide theatre buff. But like his students, Jones spent his early undergraduate years uncertain of his future. Like Corrigan, Jones started as an English major at the University of Southern Florida.
Eventually Jones would transition to the speech department, where he participated in performances of novel and poetry adaptations. Ultimately, it was a backstage interaction with a theatre professor that changed his fate. Following a rendition of Smiles of a Summer Night, Jones recalls a particularly memorable moment. “I was in the dressing room and I was looking at a reflection of the door behind me, and the door opened and a professor from theatre, who I didn’t know, leaned in and said in the reflection, ‘Yale School of Drama,’” Jones says.
On a whim, Jones applied and auditioned for the program, not expecting much in return. “A month later I got a call from a woman who said she was the registrar at the Yale School of Drama and she said I’d been admitted – I thought it was a joke,” Jones recalls, “I was flabbergasted.”
With very little practical acting experience under his belt, Jones headed off to drama school. “Talk about fear. Meryl Streep was in my class of 15. I was in worse shape than I had been if I had joined the theatre department at USF,” he says.
Clearly, Jones found his way with a natural aptitude for the theatre world. After graduating from Yale, he went on to become a successful freelance director in New York City and internationally. Eventually finding his way back to academics teaching workshops and classes at NYU, Yale, and the UCSD.
Jones transitioned to CSU in 2006, after years of constant work and travelling. With the Freshman Theatre Project, Jones has a particular goal. “I’m trying to empower these young people, and make them feel important. Like they’ve brought somebody else’s message to a group of strangers,” Jones says, “If each actor only gets one moment of satisfaction, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
For students, Corrigan and Honegger, that message has clearly been imprinted. “I think one of the best things you can learn as a performer is to learn by watching,” Corrigan says, “Someone just can’t tell you what to do, you have to get inside their mindset to become them. I think it’s fascinating meeting the person you’re portraying.”
Honegger echoes this sentiment, saying, “There’s so much to be learned from how a person acts physically or how their voice and face is as well as what they’re actually saying.”
Jones says he has as much to gain from the students as they do from him. “I feel like I learn from them all the time. They’re such a blank slate.”
The fifth annual Freshman Theatre Project took place on Saturday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. in the Studio Theatre at the University Center for the Arts.
Learn more about the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance.